Closeup of the head and eyes of a loving golden labrador retriever looking up towards blank grey studio copyspace

My Biggest Breakthrough As An Autism Parent

Note. It’s worth listening to this whilst reading. All will make sense later. 

(also – this post has nothing to do with labradors – I just liked the pic.. That said, getting a Labrador has been a game changer for our family. Just the best dogs!)

Walking 10 minutes in the rain back to the car yesterday, I had the biggest single breakthrough thought on autism I’ve ever had – and I ponder autism a lot.

Even more remarkably, it still feels like the biggest breakthrough I’ve had now it’s a day later, as I come to write it up.

In fact, I’m even going to cut the usual preamble short and just get on with it. I hope I do it justice – here it is.

‘Lazy Learning’

Our 11-year-old son has autism and pathological demand avoidance, it’s serious enough that he has to go to an out-of-area school, there being no suitable school within the entire local authority. That’s just to give some context, it’s not mild autism.

One thing that has always bothered me is that he hates being taught things, he calls it lazy. He will never watch a tutorial as he thinks that is ‘cheating’ and however hard I have tried, I have never been able to win him round in any way.

He also has projects he wants to work on and his PDA often makes these seem very pressing to him, they have to be done, and asap.

To give a recent example, he has a love hate relationship with Minecraft, but of late has decided he would love to play Minecraft again – only it has to look entirely different. Every mob and item has to look different, the music in game needs changing, even the menu screen needs to change.

So a new game basically!

That Sinking Feeling

He asked me to make the changes, of course I just had that awful feeling of wanting to help, but knowing it was an impossibility. I’m ok at tech stuff, but my gut instinct was there would be no way I was going to be able to achieve what he wanted.

My suggestion was we see if there is some sort of online tool for editing Minecraft and, if there was we could learn it together. Turns out there is a tool – Novaskin, it’s a bit old and not the easiest tool to use but it at least looked promising.

However, it’s one of those things where you keep hitting problems. A YouTube video would be so useful, it would show us what to do, but he wasn’t having it.

So, being an old hand at this, I quietly found a video or two to watch in my spare time, while he quietly settled down to work. He was on his laptop, using the app, seemingly content and so I assumed making progress.

He also likes to work secretively, only sharing work when it’s done. I can understand that.

The videos got me nowhere, I understood less if anything.

This project was clearly doomed – and I hate it when that happens, he’s consumed by a need to change things, so when I can’t help it is upsetting.

Except I needn’t have worried. My fears were unfounded. The project wasn’t doomed – far from it.

While I had been trying and failing to make sense of the tool via videos, he had just got on with it and learnt how to use the tool all by himself, pure trial and error and developing an inherent understanding of its quirks.

Phase Two – Now For The Hard Part

The progress was impressive, but this was only the objects, changing the look of them – every one lovingly edited by tweaking the skin – sort of like a mesh for a cube that then all folds together.

There was still the music. How to do the music. Hoe to even begin to edit Minecraft sound files.

Here’s how. He asked me to open GarageBand and plug in the midi keyboard, he’s only used these briefly once when he came in and I was messing around.

I was using Yousician to leanr piano. He told me that was cheating.

He settled into my desk chair. “Let me just get you started and show you,” I began… NO. I can do it.

Well, you know where I am, shout if you need me…

A couple of hours later, I was back upstairs and went on the computer. I was staggered, genuinely staggered.

He had made 11 music tracks, each using multiple instruments, each sounding like a passable Moby album track (is there any other type of Moby track?). I have been learning guitar for about three years now and, while I can now play many tunes note for note, in terms of creating anything new I have never made anything that sounded as good as these creations.

There was a definite rhythm and the music flowed. They were all similar, but different to the Minecraft jukebox discs he was looking to replace.

Oh, he had also exported them all and uploaded to the Novaskin resource pack – this after asking me once how you do this. He will at times ask how to do something, but won’t accept pre-emptive help.

Autism and Self Sufficient Learning

What suddenly struck me was that I needed to change how I view this. Refusing to learn via tutorials and others is not limiting, in its liberating.

Imagine being able to just learn how to do something and be self sufficient in the process. How much better will your understanding be? You will have learnt through truly doing, not by remembering or copying.

It might be slower initially, but it leads to far greater depth of understanding.

I also came to realise that this skill will be so powerful, it will be repeated and refined, learning new topics will become ever easier.

There will be no panic, no desperate attempt to remember what you were taught. There also won’t be that feeling of not knowing what to do next when you don’t follow the tutor’s advice.

Now, over time I still think there is benefit to him accepting some pre-emptive help – I’d rather he agrees to lessons if he is ever to take our car out for a spin.

But, as an overall point, he will simply have a way of learning that gives him so many advantages.

The Benefits of This Mindset

It is far too early to know what benefits this mindset might have for my son, what it will lead to him making and creating.

However, I do passionately believe that the world needs to embrace those who are willing to learn the hard way and not through repeating what has gone before.

I adore Radiohead and regularly go down YouTube wormholes on the music theory behind their songs, the genius of Thom Yorke.

He is a genius, but not because he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music theory – he taught himself it all through ear and playing, I even read that he made his own first guitar!

On the music theme, Mark Knopfler is one of the greatest guitarists ever – entirely self learnt, not out of a book or from lessons.

Sting writes in crazy keys and has stuff that baffles analysts, and yet sounds amazing – guess what. That’s because he learnt by doing and finding what worked – and he had the natural talent in this area for innovation and experimentation to merge with inborn musicality.

In art, how many groundbreaking artists follow what had gone before, or did they rip up the rule book and do it their way?

Throwing Forward

Now, don’t worry. I don’t expect my son to be Picasso, or to write the next great experimental album.

For him, I just hope that he finds the avenues to explore his talents.

The more general point is that this is what the world needs. Most people will always learn by doing what has gone before, I’m in that camp. It’s fine.

However, we need to find ways to embrace those who don’t like this method, for whom it is alien.

Yes, they might fall behind in areas. Maths is harder at school if you don’t want to be taught the standard methods (but even here – once you have worked it out for yourself, you truly understand the logic).

I would argue that there are more than enough people who can remember a good percentage of the stuff they are taught. These people are all perfectly good at their job, they help keep things ticking over. Again, I’m in that camp.

However, for there to be advances in anything it requires those who learn by doing and truly embrace this way of being to be to the fore – they live this way out of an internal necessity.

This is as true for business as it is the arts or science. You need points of difference, new opinions and new perspectives. We have surely all been in meetings where we would happily swap one or two yes people with identikit opinions for someone who thinks differently.

Otherwise, you stagnate.

For school grades and career politics and all that stuff we are bought into, this way of working is sub optimal, learning by remembering and copying what has gone before will lead to the most certain success.

But, for progress and the betterment of all we need the doers.


The Music

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